Martin Dressler is the son of a hard-working small cigar-shop owner in New York City. Martin works hard in his father's shop, loving his work and his family, devoting his life to it. His earnest attention to detail and customer service attracts the attention of the hotel down the street, which hires him part time as a bell hop at the age of 14. Now working two jobs (quitting his father's shop was not an option), he has no time for school, a move his mother protests.
Martin's advance through the ranks of the hotel seems inevitable, until he rejects the offer of an assistant manager position to open his own business. Each move is a success, building an empire of money-generating cafes all over New York City by his early twenties.
So far, this description of "Martin Dressler" the novel sounds, like Martin Dressler the man, an unreserved exercise in optimism and the power of positive thinking and hard work. But Millhauser is too good of a writer to tell us that fable. Instead, we learn, in his characteristically spare prose, that Martin is a man of flaws, just not ones that ever affect his ability to be a success at his business. Caught--and caught up--in the Entrepreneurial age of fin de siecle New York City, as the subway tunnels beneath the streets and skyscrapers blossom 20 stories above, as steam powers the ships and trains that surround and criss-cross the city, Martin is strong enough to capture the age, but not strong enough to control it. Working maniacally, he remains a virgin until realizing that normal people have relationships with the opposite sex, he takes care of the problem in terms he is most comfortable with--at a brothel, where the exchange of the only thing of value he knows can satisfy his desires with no wasted time. His leisure activities consist of energetic hikes north beyond the established city to still-rural streets and parks where the subway is rumored to be headed--and where he will buy land to build his greatest financial successes. His parents, never excoriated for bad parenting, hectoring, or dislike, slowly fade into nonexistence as his life is consumed by work . . .
. . . Until he meets a widow and her two marriage-age daughters. While he enjoys the company of all three women, Caroline, the pale hypochondriac who says little and controls those around her with her shrinking-violet moods, draws Martin to her almost without words or relationship, until they are married. Emmeline, the darker daughter who sparks conversation with her wit and interest in Martin and the world he inhabits, becomes his most valued and trusted employee--and never his lover, no matter what circumstance places her in his path, and Millhauser will draw them close together, but not along the hackneyed well-worn paths typical of most fictional romantic entanglements.
No, Millhauser has a different tale to tell, echoing back perhaps to a parallel version of Oscar Wilde's account of Dorian Gray, the bon vivant whose hidden painting ages as he never does. Here, Millhauser draws Martin's perfectly-created artistic success at business as a subtle but telling contrast to his shadowy personal existence that gradually crumbles apart.
In the end, Millhauser's tale is more like that of Prince Charming and his Sleeping Beauty, who instead of rising from her bed of sleeping death, draws her Prince into a dreamlike world that he himself created--quite literally, as you will see.
Two-thirds of this book is great. It's the story of an enterprising young man who becomes a successful entrepreneur through hard work and merit (although his personal life is rather bizarre). The book completely falls apart at the end. It devolves into a surreal and colossal hubris that is disconnected from the rest of the book and the character. It works as neither satire nor as a morality tale, or anything else. How this book won a Pulitzer Prize is a puzzle to me.
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
Martin Dressler is a turn-of-the-century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father's cigar store but dreams of a bigger empire. That dream shapes into a series of large hotels. At first, Dressler's seems the archetypal American success story, but he does not quite grasp the future. The Manhattan of fabled skyline is about to take shape just over the horizon, but Dressler cannot see it. So the story becomes another kind of fable, as Dressler contemplates having "dreamed the wrong dream."--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.